The last 10 years feel like a constant firehose of news aimed at our collective face. A teetering democracy, rising fascism, an entire political party held hostage by a spray-tan psycho, that spray-tan psycho’s legal adventure, a pandemic, inflation…
It is a bit much. May you live in interesting times, as the so-called curse goes. And I didn’t even mention climate change.
Climate change has a way of clearing its throat to let you know it is still there and wants some attention. Out-of-control wildfires are one aspect of our warming world that often makes the news. Generally, we think of California as the wildfire capital of the world, as we saw in 2020. The image at the top is San Francisco that year, with the sky taking on an apocalyptic shade. Imagine showing images of street lights on during the day, an orange sky, and people in masks to someone in 1980, telling them this is 2020.
Nature decided that the West Coast shouldn’t hog all the existential crisis fun, so last week, it was the East Coast’s turn to suffer from wildfire smoke. The city that took its turn having its skyline look like a scene from Blade Runner was New York City, and a large portion of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic had all-time worse air quality.
I often encounter examples of people believing politics and the stuff in the news won’t affect them finding out that indeed, sometimes it actually can. A high school friend of mine, who has repeatedly discussed on Facebook how proud she is to ignore the news and politics because it really doesn’t affect her, has asthma. The news in this case did not ignore her, as she posted on Facebook last week about how much the Hour’s Top Story was increasing her asthma symptoms and how she needed to use her inhaler much more.
This is not picking on her, as she is certainly not the only one finding out that climate politics is directly affecting them. As a meteorologist I know pointed out several years ago, there are almost certainly people who have said “ha! not gonna worry about climate change, it’ll be a problem long after I am dead” and then have been killed by an event made worse by climate change.
Now, how climate change affects our world is complex. One example is hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. Meteorologist Matt Lanza, founder and editor of the tropical cyclone website The Eyewall, yesterday published an excellent piece on the marked increase in the severity of Gulf hurricanes since 2017. I highly recommend reading it, it offers both a bullet-point summary of recent research findings at the beginning and a more in-depth look at some unnerving trends thereafter. These trends include hurricanes rapidly intensifying right before landfall, and tropical systems slowing down and dumping tremendous rains that cause devastating floods, such as Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
Not great! But also, not quite as simple as you might think. There are regional variations in these trends even within the Gulf of Mexico. It is impossible to say severe hurricane seasons for Gulf residents are a new normal, although these kinds of tropical seasons look to happen more often. The atmosphere is complicated, so how climate change alters it is also complicated.
But there are some clear signs things are accelerating quickly. On Monday, this Tweet got some shares across Twitter:
Three of the most terrifying graphs on the internet right now. pic.twitter.com/bp8jUrW6Ds
— Rutger Bregman (@rcbregman) June 12, 2023
Those three graphs are absolutely insane and rather terrifying. I really do not understand how someone can look at that and think that climate change is a Chinese hoax or a natural process or liberal delusion or Al Gore’s scheme to make money. Or if you live where Adrastos does and are experiencing record heat, something more common than it once was.
Unfortunately, most Republicans still believe climate change is a nothing burger. Pew research found that 23% of Republicans do not view climate change as a threat.
As COVID demonstrated, America is not great at handling a large-scale crisis because a significant part of our population is delusional or willfully ignorant. Another part of the problem is the monied interests such as the fossil fuel industry (and their cohorts in elected office) who use this delusion and ignorance for their own gains. While it is not very likely that the world itself will end, the world will be different and worse for at least some time, something we are already seeing. People will die because of it, although as I wrote back in April, lately death really doesn’t seem to matter to a lot of Americans.
Solutions are still possible, but time is quickly running out and unfortunately, the standard “reasoned” approach of incrementalism is like walking calmly to an exit during an active shooter situation. We need to move faster. And ignoring a problem is rarely the best solution. As we are seeing, climate change has a way of tapping our collective American shoulder until we have to look.
The last word goes to Julian Lennon, from his surprisingly good album from last year, Jude.